Saturday, July 7, 2012

APOCALYPSE THEN: How B-29 Bombers Burned Tokyo

I think I've mentioned here (several times over) that during the past year or so I've been immersed in the writing of my second book, this time with the focus on Japan from 1929 on.

One Hundred Years of Vicissitude is a blend of historical novel, surrealism, a mystery and noir; there's fantasy and a wee bit of romance in there as well, and I'm always ready for a hardboiled moment or two.

Included in this mix is an homage to classic Japanese cinema by the likes of Akira Kurosawa, Seijun Suzuki, and Satoshi Kon, along with actors Toshiro Mifune and Meiko Kaji.

There are nods to manga and comic books, medieval potboilers, Melbourne, Lewis Carroll, and Osamu Tezuka - along with the only visit to Tokyo by the Graf Zeppelin, saké, an eight-headed dragon, the sumo, geisha, James Bond, the Japanese Red Army, and a lot of other wayward stuff people might expect of me.

Also included is a pivotal dramatic tipping point, one that relates to the fire-bombing of Tokyo in March 1945.

Not long after I first arrived in Japan in 2001, I remember an elderly student, a child in that firebombing of the evening of March 9th and the morning of March 10th, 1945. He recounted a story that the Kanda River ran red. Whether from blood or the reflection of the fires all around, I was too timid to ask.

For the novel I ended up doing a lot of research into that fateful night. After doing so, I abridged several pages to put together a three-page summation. I toyed with this as the prologue for One Hundred Years of Vicissitude - but ditched the notion and instead integrated most of the facts and figures into survivor Kohana's diatribes about the event, early on in the story.

Coincidentally, I was writing up the fictional account here in Tokyo this past March, around the same time as the 67th anniversary of the aerial strike - though I was too immersed in the yarn to notice.

Disclaimers out of the way, let's start with the B-29. You might recall the one from the opening credits of the Watchmen film, emblazoned with "Miss Jupiter".

The American B-29 bomber had every right to call itself a ‘Superfortress’, since the contraption was a flying stronghold.

This was the largest aircraft inducted during World War II, a four-engine beauty flaunting a dozen 50-calibre M2 heavy machine guns mounted in five turrets, and one 20-millimetre cannon in its backside. All that was missing was a catapult.

While the plane’s length doesn’t ring so impressive - 99 feet, or just over 30 metres - the wingspan was 141 feet (43 metres) and it had an area of 1,736 square feet.

The bugger weighed in at 33,600 kilograms, prior to cramming in its particularly lethal payload.

The B-29 pushed the throttle to 357 miles per hour and it had a flight ceiling of 12 kilometres - making it practically immune to ground-based anti-aircraft fire and enemy fighter planes such as the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, which flew slower and lower.

I don’t know how you feel, but all these facts and figures bamboozle me.

In a nutshell, this was a huge thing that was well armed, flew higher and faster than anyone else, and carried a lot of bombs.

“The success of the development of the B-29 is an outstanding example of the technical leadership and resourcefulness which is the American way of doing things,” U.S. Major General Curtis LeMay wrote in the foreword to the airplane’s Combat Crew Manual, which also includes Disney-like cartoons and useful tidbits like what to do in case of snakebite.